Cover Image by Jenny Mae Wong
On a recent trip to Costco with my young son, I was trying my best to stick to my pre-planned list – for once. I’m sure many can relate to how a Costco spree can quickly get out of hand when constraints aren’t put in place. I’ll be honest, it’s gotten to the point where my jaw has literally dropped when they announced the grand total. Not this time, I said.
But the first section I passed through with my empty cart was the vitamins and supplements section, which in my Costco has a separate checkout, and within 3 minutes I had already spent over a hundred bucks after throwing bottles into my cart willy nilly.
After all of the information you see out there on the interwebs and social media, touting X supplement to solve Y health issue, it’s easy to scan the aisles and think, “oh that’s good for you, oh that’s good too!” and to accomplish the dual feats of overspending your budget and confusing yourself.
The simple fix might seem to be a multivitamin – that covers all of your bases, right? Well, it may not be quite so simple as that. First, our bodies are adapted to absorb nutrients from our food, so the most important thing – literally the most important single thing you can do for your health – is to eat a mostly healthy diet with plenty of nutrient-rich foods. For some principles on how you might approach this, see this article!
That means that if you’ve got a basically nutritious diet in place, a lot of the long list of ingredients you see printed on the back of that bottle may be going – literally – down the tubes. There are really only a few key nutrients that, even with a healthy diet, many of us are still likely to be deficient in, and those we should top up with supplementation. Read on below for the nutritional supplements that really matter!
- Vitamin D
This one goes at the top of the list chiefly because of its connection the the Covid times we are living in. Largely underappreciated for a long time, vitamin D has come back in the spotlight as some studies showed a disproportionate number of Covid patients with severe symptoms seemed to be deficient in this nutrient. Studies like this one indicate that at the very least, making sure you have sufficient vitamin D can provide some small benefit to your body in fighting off, or reducing the severity of, Covid and and other viral and/or inflammatory conditions.
On a more general note, Vitamin D provides support for the immune system, especially respiratory tract, and support hormonal function, neuromuscular function, and because it aids in the absorption of calcium, bone strength. If you don’t want to shell out for supplements, make sure you get at least 15-20 minutes of sunshine between 10am -2pm daily, and eat foods like fatty fish, egg yolks and foods that are fortified with vitamin D, like many brands of milk are. If you’re averse to exposing your skin to sun for extended periods, go with a supplement that also has vitamin K, which helps your body absorb it.
An essential nutrient is not just one that we need – our body can’t produce it, making it necessary for us to ingest it through foods or – supplements. Magnesium is often referred to as the “master mineral”, because of it is crucial role in so many body functions. It helps with:
- Blood glucose (sugar) control.
- Nerve function.
- Protein and bone synthesis, and even DNA!
- Hormonal health. For men, magnesium has proven to increase testosterone levels.
- Sleep quality. I started taking it for this benefit alone!
- Calming the nervous system and reducing stress. Bonus!
Again, if you want to avoid supplementation, eat plenty of pumpkin, squash, spinach, artichoke, beans, tofu and nuts.
Like its big sister magnesium, zinc is an essential mineral the facilitates a variety of functions in the body. It is known to boost immunity (who doesn’t like the sound of that these days), and has beneficial effects on skin and recovery from exercise. Your body can’t produce or store zinc, so it’s important to continually resupply. Zinc is often deficient in people who are older or under stress. If you’re both, get yourself some zinc already! Food sources include shellfish, especially oysters, grass-fed beef, pumpkin seeds, spinach and organ meats.
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omegas have been stars on the nutrition scene for many years now, with 3’s taking top spot after omega 6 oils were linked with inflammatory conditions. Omega 3’s have the opposite effect, helping to reduce inflammation in the body.
Omega 3 fatty acids also play an important role in maintaining healthy skin and hair, and most importantly, they’ve shown to improve brain function, especially important as we age. Want more? Omega 3 fatty acids also help to regulate metabolism and may be a useful friend in your (my) fat loss efforts! Done deal.
One of the biggest narrative changes in recent years regarding health has been the breakout status of the gut as a crucial player on team “Live a Long and Healthy Life”. We’ve learned more and more about the crucial role of the gut biome (who’d even heard of that 10-15 years ago?) in promoting overall health. Who knew that over 70% of our immune cells were in our gut? Or that 100 million neurons, and 95% of our serotonin, were living there? Turns out that terms like I have a gut feeling, or “gut instinct” were more literally accurate than we ever knew before. It’s only right that we should pay attention to what our guts tell us, and give them what they need to preserve the delicate balance of flora and fauna necessary for optimal health. Enter probiotics, or healthy bacteria that bolster the guts functions. Found in fermented foods like natural Greek-style yogurt and kimchi, probiotics can be added as a supplement to make sure your tummy is getting everything it wants.
The final, and probably least recognizable addition to this list, glutamine is an essential amino acid, required by but not produced by the body. I’d say it’s an unsung hero of nutrition, as it is not only a building block for protein to build and maintain lean muscle, but it has also proven extremely beneficial to the immune system and gut health, which, as noted above, are closely connected. Glutamine is one of the key ingredients the body needs to make glutathione, the body’s most potent anti-oxidant. So if you want to improve lean muscle and post-exercise recovery, bolster your gut health and immunity, and ensure a good supply of antioxidants in your body, glutamine is a worthy addition to your supplement shelf!